Malala Yousafzai does not look threatening. She has soft brown eyes and a round, girlish face. The corners of her lips seem forever upturned into a calm smile. For the Pakistani Taliban, though, Malala represents the very face of peril.
When a Taliban gunman approached 14-year-old Malala and her friends on their way home from school and shot her in the head and neck, the extremist group’s fear of this barely adolescent activist became clear.
This story began when she was just 11 years old and had just started blogging for BBC Urdu about life in the Taliban-controlled Swat Valley region in Pakistan. Writing under a pseudonym, she spoke out against Taliban efforts to ban girls from attending school. Her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, ran one of the last schools in defiance of Taliban orders to end female education. According to CNN, the Taliban had shut down approximately 200 schools when Malala rose to prominence in 2009.
Of what importance is one teenage advocate of women’s education to the Taliban? Its anti-feminist beliefs are rooted in its steadfast (albeit warped) interpretation of Islam. If the Taliban’s beliefs and devotion to the word of Allah are so withstanding, how does the small oppositional voice of a single schoolgirl even stand a chance? While Malala Yousafzai certainly brought some international attention to the situation in the Swat Valley through her writing, the immediate ramifications of her activism were hardly influential on the outcomes of life there. To this day, the Taliban maintains a high degree of influence over the area.
For this band of armed men and self-proclaimed warriors, Malala represents more than just a symbol of defiance. She is a living, breathing force of progression; the seed of activism that holds the potential to grow beyond the Taliban’s grasp. More than this, she is proof that dissidence does not always originate from outside Western influences—Pakistani born and raised, Malala Yousafzai is the proof of local empowerment. In Slate columnist William J. Dobson’s article, “Why the Taliban Fears Teenage Girls,” he explains that in a nation full of Malalas, the Taliban would have no future. “For the Taliban,” he writes, “an outspoken, freethinking girl is the beginning of the end.”
The content of Malala’s aspirations for equal education opportunities also undercuts the Taliban’s survival. Education has time and time again proven to be a guiding path for democratization and an antidote for problems like poverty and political instability in underdeveloped nations. Swat Valley’s poor standard of living sustains the Taliban, allowing it to thrive on the suffering of others.
In the article “Islam and Authoritarianism,” political scientist Steven Fish discusses the negative influence of gender inequality on democratization in underdeveloped Muslim societies. Minimizing societal gender gaps, he found, improved the quality of civil society and fostered a participatory atmosphere necessary for democracy to succeed. The Population Council conducted a study to examine the benefits of female education and found that countries with higher education levels consistently had higher average household incomes, better local services, and smaller, healthier families. All of these factors come part and parcel with democratic reform. For a radical militant group whose integrity withers in the presence of democracy, what could be more frightening than this?
In 2009 Malala wrote in a blog post,“I am afraid. I had a terrible dream yesterday with military helicopters and the Taliban. I have had such dreams since the launch of the military operation in Swat.” Of course she was scared; she knew she was on the Taliban’s hit list from very early on. But Malala never feared the Taliban in the way that its members feared her. Her commitment to her beliefs ultimately trumped any fear that might prevent her from attending school or continuing to blog and give interviews.
The same cannot be said for the cowardly men who hide behind their weapons and warrior beards. Their shooting was an act of sheer desperation and evidence of the uncertainty in their own beliefs. On October 9th, these men showed that they were too weak to confront the challenge of even a schoolgirl’s writing. World Politics Review columnist Frida Ghitis rightly said, “We have discovered who the biggest cowards on the planet are today.”
“Miracle Malala,” as she has recently been called, is currently recuperating in Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. She was flown to England on October 15 for better medical treatment and increased protection from attack attempts. The Taliban has vowed to target her again, should she survive now. While the bullet caused significant physical damage to Malala’s brain, doctors are still unsure of whether or not there has been functional damage. As it stands, medical director Dr. David Rosser has said that she has been “communicating freely through writing.” And now her voice is even louder. Through her acts of courage, Malala Yousafzai has transcended symbolism. Her actions have triggered real changes—all over Pakistan, inspired youths and adults alike have held demonstrations for equal education opportunities and vigils in honor of her bravery. These changes, we can rest assured, are powerful enough to keep Taliban members shaking in their boots.